Complementary medicine products used in pregnancy and lactation and an examination of the information sources accessed pertaining to maternal health literacy: a systematic review of qualitative studies

BMC Complement Altern Med. 2018 Jul 31;18(1):229. doi: 10.1186/s12906-018-2283-9.


Background: The prevalence of complementary medicine use in pregnancy and lactation has been increasingly noted internationally. This systematic review aimed to determine the complementary medicine products (CMPs) used in pregnancy and/or lactation for the benefit of the mother, the pregnancy, child and/or the breastfeeding process. Additionally, it aimed to explore the resources women used, and to examine the role of maternal health literacy in this process.

Methods: Seven databases were comprehensively searched to identify studies published in peer-reviewed journals (1995-2017). Relevant data were extracted and thematic analysis undertaken to identify key themes related to the review objectives.

Results: A total of 4574 articles were identified; 28 qualitative studies met the inclusion criteria. Quantitative studies were removed for a separate, concurrent review. Herbal medicines were the main CMPs identified (n = 21 papers) in the qualitative studies, with a smaller number examining vitamin and mineral supplements together with herbal medicines (n = 3), and micronutrient supplements (n = 3). Shared cultural knowledge and traditions, followed by women elders and health care professionals were the information sources most accessed by women when choosing to use CMPs. Women used CMPs for perceived physical, mental-emotional, spiritual and cultural benefits for their pregnancies, their own health, the health of their unborn or breastfeeding babies, and/or the breastfeeding process. Two over-arching motives were identified: 1) to protect themselves or their babies from adverse events; 2) to facilitate the normal physiological processes of pregnancy, birth and lactation. Decisions to use CMPs were made within the context of their own cultures, reflected in the locus of control regarding decision-making in pregnancy and lactation, and in the health literacy environment. Medical pluralism was very common and women navigated through and between different health care services and systems throughout their pregnancies and breastfeeding journeys.

Conclusions: Pregnant and breastfeeding women use herbal medicines and micronutrient supplements for a variety of perceived benefits to their babies' and their own holistic health. Women access a range of CMP-related information sources with shared cultural knowledge and women elders the most frequently accessed sources, followed by HCPs. Culture influences maternal health literacy and thus women's health care choices including CMP use.

Keywords: Breastfeeding; Complementary medicine products; Culture; Health care choices; Health literacy; Lactation; Medical pluralism; Pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Breast Feeding
  • Complementary Therapies* / instrumentation
  • Complementary Therapies* / psychology
  • Decision Making
  • Female
  • Health Literacy*
  • Humans
  • Lactation*
  • Pregnancy
  • Qualitative Research
  • Women's Health*